Have a Whale of a Good Time by Barbara L. Steinberg
Each winter California welcomes the return of its official marine mammal, the gray whale. The annual migration of more than 18,000 gray whales begins high in Alaskan waters. The giants then travel southward along California's coastline en route to their breeding and birthing waters in the bays and lagoons of Baja California. These majestic mammals hug California's shoreline at Point Reyes National Seashore, past the Farallon Islands, travel through Half Moon Bay and Monterey Bay, then follow the coastline past Southern California before reaching Mexico.
The whales travel 70 to 80 miles per day at a rate of three to five miles per hour. A spout of vaporized water, at times reaching 12 feet, becomes visible to watchers as the whales surface every three to five minutes to breathe. Their 12,000-mile round-trip trek is the longest known distance any mammal migrates on an annual basis. During the migration, the whales will travel in small groups and stay fairly close to the shoreline for protection from predators, such as killer whales. By mid-February, the migration pattern reverses as the whales lead their new-born calves back to the chilly Arctic waters of the Bering Sea in Alaska.
Gray whales—the only whale species to fully recover its pre-whaling population levels—may reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 45 tons. Named for their gray coloring, the whales have mottled gray skin due to both natural pigmentation, and whale lice barnacle colonies. When swimming or hovering just below the surface, the whales may appear uniformly white or slate blue. One of the gray's more distinctive traits is its lack of a dorsal fin. Instead, a low hump is followed by a series of bumps down the back.
The initial sighting of the gray whale is exhilarating. The blow—a puff of steam standing up to 12 feet off the water—will appear; where there is one blow, others are sure to follow as whales tend to travel in groups of two to six. An amazing maneuver the whales perform is spyhopping. A whale may stick its head above water one or more times consecutively—it is believed that the whale is either getting its bearings or using gravity to help swallow. The most dramatic and exciting behavior observed is breaching. The whale will leap out of the water and fall to its side or back making a spectacular splash. This behavior can be perceived as a form of communication to other whales in the area or means of “back scratching” to release the numerous parasites from the whales' hides.
The four-month period from December through March is a celebration for aficionados of marine and coastal biology life as various festivals, cruises and events are planned in conjunction with the gray whale's yearly migratory pattern.
Point Reyes National Seashore, home of the picturesque Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County, has one of the best viewing locations. In addition, naturalist talks ,”Journey of the Whale,” are offered weekends and holidays during the season, 1:30 p.m. The Lighthouse Visitor Center is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Parking is very limited and weekends can be crowded. Th winter shuttle service runs December 31 through late March or mid-April, operating on weekends and holidays, weather permitting during whale-watching season. For details on the talks and shuttles, call the Bear Valley Visitor Center (415) 464-5100; open seven days a week. Checkout their Facebook page for updates on sightings.
Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma in San Diego is home to a glassed-in whale-watching observatory featuring whale exhibits and a taped narration, is being renovated but should re-open soon. The center is open daily 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Interpretive programs are available, call for information.
Other areas for active viewing include (counties listed from north to south):
Endert’s Beach Overlook. Approximately three miles off U.S. 101 on Endert’s Beach Road to the parking lot and viewing area which is a redwood deck built on top of a rock.
Battery Point. This is accessible only at low tide from the parking area at the foot of “A” Street in Crescent City.
Brother Jonathan Vista Point. Located on Pebble Beach Drive at Ninth Street in Crescent City. Viewing area is about 10 feet above the surface of the ocean.
Point St. George. Located about three miles northwest of Crescent City at the west end of Washington Boulevard.
Castle Rock, near Crescent City. The best location for viewing this island is along Pebble Beach Drive north of the Brother Jonathan Vista Point, south of Point St. George.
Humboldt County: Dry Lagoon, Humboldt Lagoons State Park, Freshwater Lagoon,
Redwood National & State Parks near Orick, Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park,
McKinleyville Vista Point off U.S. 101, Palmer’s Point and Wedding Rock, Patrick’s Point State Park, Trinidad, Scenic drive, south of Trinidad offers a number of spectacular vista points as well as access to beaches such as Luffenholtz Beach.
Shelter Cove. Take the Garberville/Redway exit off U.S. 101 to the Lost Coast.
Table Bluff. South spit of Humboldt Bay Trinidad Head at Trinidad Harbor, Trinidad.
Santa Cruz County: Pigeon Point, Greyhound Rock and Davenport Coastline
Monterey County: Monterey Peninsula, Big Sur
Los Angeles County: Catalina Island, and Korean Friendship Bell and Point Fermin Lighthouse, San Pedro
Orange County: Dana Point
Ventura County: Channel Islands National Park
Island Packers - The 3‐3½ hour non‐landing narrated whale-watching trips are offered from both Ventura Harbor and Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. Trips depart almost daily at 9:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. All‐day trips with landing are also available on Anacapa or Santa Cruz islands. Camping is also available on all five islands. Advance reservations are advised and can be made by calling (805) 642‐1393.
California State Beaches also offer a number of programs and locations for viewing migrating whales. For details on what programs are offered, contact the state park listed below or visit www.Parks.ca.gov for general information on all state parks.
Fort Ross State Historic Park - (707) 847-3286
Garrapata State Park - (831) 624-4909
MacKerricher State Park - (707) 937-5804
Manchester State Beach - (707) 937-5804
Mendocino Headlands State Park - (707) 937-5804
Montaña de Oro State Park - (805) 528-0513
Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History - (805) 772-2694
Patrick's Point State Park - (707) 677-3570
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve - (831) 624-4904
Point Sal State Beach - (805) 733-3713
Point Sur State Historic Park - (831) 625-4419
Salt Point State Park - (707) 847-3221
Sonoma Coast State Beach - (707) 875-3483
Silver Strand State Beach - (619) 435-5184
California Festivals Celebrate Gray Whales
Whalefest Monterey—Welcome the grays at Monterey Bay, Point Lobos and Big Sur. Take part in this two-week celebration with whale-themed art shows, natural history exhibits, and children’s programs at dozens of cultural and natural history organizations, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For more information and a schedule of events, visit.
Whale Fiesta, San Pedro - Special speakers and presentations are included in weekend festivities at the enclosed whale-watching station at the end of Point Loma in San Diego. Weekend date to be determined by November.
For more information, call: (619) 557-5450.
Oxnard’s Celebration of the Whales - Taking place at Channel Islands Harbor, the celebration will include entertainment and exhibits highlighting the offshore migration of the gray whale. The event also includes island trips, speakers, and arts and crafts.
Dana Point’s Festival of Whales - After an opening ceremony at La Plaza Park with a two-day street faire, this spectacular event will kick-off with a grand display of tallships at the Dana Point harbor. The Orange County Marine Institute will sponsor a “Whaling & Art of the Sailor” exhibition, and the last weekend will finish with a “wag-a-thon” plus much more. For more information, call: (888) 440-4309 or (949) 472-7888.
Mendocino Whale Festival. Celebrate in the village's galleries and shops with premium wines from Mendocino's top vintners. Other highlights include chowder tasting, marine art exhibits, music and whale-watching walks on the headlands. For more information.
Fort Bragg Whale Festival. Along with dozens of microbrews provided by the Fort Bragg Rotary Club, the area’s top chefs will produce their favorite chowders. A marine mammal art exhibit and crafts fair are also part of the two-day festival. Experience the excitement of whales in motion with a boat excursion at Noyo Harbor. For more information.
Little River Whale Festival. Savor bites from the kitchens of the town's noted chefs, sips from Mendocino County vintners, history and birding walks in Van Damme State Park, artist studio tours, fireside talks with local historians.
Long Beach Whale Watching. Explore the Pacific Ocean and enjoy an up-close and personal experience with the world's largest mammals. Special whale-watching packages offered by the Aquarium of the Pacific. and tours and cruises by Harbor Breeze Whale-Watching Cruises, and Pieroint Landing.
Morro Bay Whale Watching is waiting. The Dos Osos is an open-deck pontoon boat, so dress with additional layers. A seasoned crew and interpretive staff provide background and safety instructions. Gray whales visit middle of December through May. Sightings are virtually guaranteed. Other commonly seen marine life includes blue whales, minke whales, fin whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins.